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Style at Home: Art Restoration - Ladue News: Special Features

Style at Home: Art Restoration

Finishing Touches

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Posted: Thursday, June 25, 2009 12:00 am

          A thing of beauty is a joy forever, but forever is a long time. Paintings, sculptures and fine furniture, like people, are vulnerable to the ravages of aging. Fortunately, several area galleries and businesses specialize in the meticulous craft of restoration. Their expertise can help you care for your fine art and antiques.

    Jonathan Kodner still winces when he remembers the Albert Bierstadt painting that had been damaged by a carelessly thrown basketball, and the $3.5 million Picasso that fell during an earthquake. “The Bierstadt was torn, and the lower part of the Picasso’s canvas had buckled,” recalls Kodner, co-owner of Kodner Gallery. “We had the Bierstadt re-stitched and the paint touched up and re-stretched the Picasso. Both works were restored to their original integrity.”

    Scott Kerr and his four-person team at McCaughen & Burr Fine Arts were asked to restore the Thomas Hart Benton murals at the Missouri State Capitol building a few years ago. “It was an extraordinary challenge, because Benton, like a lot of those WPA painters in the 1930s, used egg tempera instead of oil paint,” recalls Kerr, who has been restoring paintings and murals for 25 years.

    Art restoration requires a high degree of artistic talent as well as technical expertise, says Kodner, who relies on experts all over the country for restoration services. “A skilled craftsperson can match a color and a brush stroke with amazing precision,” he notes. “He or she can repair damage by using the least invasive process.”

    “The best restorers have what we call a ‘soft hand’ they know when to stop,” agrees Kerr of McCaughen & Burr, the oldest art gallery west of the Mississippi. “You not only have to know how to paint, you have to understand how other people paint.”

    Restorers are called upon to fix rips, punctures, scrapes or cracks; water or fire damage; deterioration from acidic materials and pigments; and dirty varnishes or surfaces. “One of the most common problems we see is with paintings, drawings and sculpture that have been kept in rooms with old fireplaces,” Kodner says. “The ones from more than 50 years ago deposited a lot of soot, which is hard to clean.”

    Although Kerr, himself a restoration artist, has fixed more than his share of ripped or charred canvases over the years, the majority of his restoration work is basic cleaning. “After about 20 years or so of soot, cigarette smoke, and wear and tear, the varnish on a painting yellows, making the painting look dark and dingy and obscuring detail and dimension,” he explains. Removing that layer or two of varnish with cleansing solution and cotton swabs is a slow, painstaking process that can take up to 30 days. “Once the varnish is off, we do whatever needs to be done: patch up tears, sand the rough spots, do a little fill-in painting. Then we go over everything again with a mild solution and add a couple layers of resin-based varnish.”  The fresh varnish enhances the color and protects the painting for future generations. “And that’s the whole point of restoration,” Kerr says. “People don’t really own artwork, we’re just caretakers.”

    Like art restoration, antiques refinishing also takes an artist’s eye and a technician’s knowledge. Sue Wheeler has been applying both for more than 20 years at her business, Wood Refinishing by Sue Wheeler, and as the exclusive refinisher for Jon Paul’s Antiques. “I don’t do ‘restoration,’ which involves using the same products as the original finish,” she explains. “What I do is technically ‘refinishing’: I strip or sand the piece and then use contemporary products, such as polyurethane.”

    State-of-the-art products make Wheeler’s job easier, although she refuses to use spray lacquers. “These go on with less labor and are an advantage for the bottom line, but I’ve always used polyurethane and prefer it for durability.” She and her employee of 14 years, Ron Johnson, still strip each piece by hand: “It’s much gentler on the wood.” But she sings the praises of today’s polyurethane finishes. “Polyurethane used to look a quarter-inch thick and had only one sheen: gloss. Now the texture is wonderful and it comes in a variety of sheens, including satin, semi-gloss and gloss. With a satin poly, I can make a piece look hand-rubbed. For a little more shine, I’ll use a semi-gloss.”

    She prefers to do an ‘open-grain’ finish, which doesn’t involve a seal coat. “You can feel the grain when it’s done,” she says. “I don’t care for a lacquer finish to me, it feels like plastic, not wood. If that’s what a client wants, I’ll refer him to someone else.”

    The oldest piece she’s ever worked on was a bed from the 1850s. “My client bought it at auction from Ivey-Selkirk,” she recalls. “He needed the side rails extended to fit a queen-size bed, so we had to make sure the new wood was ‘aged’ to match the old. I sat down with gel stains of different colors and worked and worked until I got it exactly right.”

    It was worth it, she says. “There’s so much gratification in transforming a piece back to its original condition. The most fun of all is watching the customer’s face when he sees what a big difference a little loving care can make.” 

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